Surfer Buddha in the House
My sons wanted me to go to lunch with a few dozen people who went to the grave with us. I said fine as long as I could punch out the first asshole who said, “She’s with God now.” Four days was enough to have your face rubbed in it. Now it was time for a chemical lobotomy. I picked up a case of Dewar’s on the way home. Helen made me switch from booze to anti-depressants ten years ago after I bottomed out nicely in a drunken car crash. I got off with a DUI, retired from the Fire Department before they could fire me and gradually lost contact with the men I worked with and everyone else besides Helen. But at least I wasn’t depressed enough to suck an exhaust pipe. I wasn’t anything in fact. The Paxil formed a plexiglass skin that separated me from the world.
I humped the case of booze onto the kitchen table and ripped out a bottle of scotch. Hello, old friend. I gagged at the first swallow, but it was a comforting kind of nausea. Carrying the bottle with me, I disconnected the phones, locked the doors, pulled the shades, flushed the green pills down the toilet, filled an ice bucket and retired underground to the basement rec room with my case of comfort juice. It was early summer, and I had ordered the cable baseball package, so I had the inane banter of the announcers to keep me company as I worked through my issues.
I drank until I couldn’t stand and then I drank until I couldn’t think and then I drank until I passed out on the concrete floor. When I woke up, I did it again. As a hobby for the grieving widower, it fit the bill. As I flowed from drunk to drunk, the plexiglass coating grew brittle. Hairline cracks developed. Regret seeped through the fissures into my organs. The usual crap. Things I could have done, should have done while Helen was alive. Things I should not have done while she was dying. Not being there for her the night she died. That was the worst. She had slipped into a coma, some nurse had told me. I went home to sleep. Stopped for ice cream along the way. Came home to the message from the hospital. I lied to Bobby about being there. Too ashamed to admit my crass laziness. If he knew, he didn’t say anything. Just another shitty episode in the life of Tom Delaney.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like it did. I was supposed to die first. I was positive of that. She even got my heart attack. The one that kills you in the middle of the night so your spouse tries to shake you awake at first because you look so peaceful. How dare she one up me like that?
“Oh boo hoo, you pussy,” Tom Seaver said from the TV screen.
“Shut up and announce the game, Seaver.”
“You think you’re the first person on earth whose wife has died? Grow up, Delaney.”
“That’s about what I’d expect from a second rate announcer for a third rate team like the Mets.”
“Get your head out of your ass, Delaney, you miserable son of a bitch. Your kid is hurting too. Why don’t you think about someone else for a change?”
“Go fuck yourself, Seaver.” I switched to the Yankee game before he could talk back.
“Dad, are you all right?” My son Bobby the cop was crouched over me shaking my shoulder. “You can’t stay down here forever, Dad. We’re going to take you home with us. Get up and pack a bag.”
“How the hell did you get in here?” I was lying face up on the cool basement floor with a puddle of puke by my head and a pool of piss under my ass.
"You want to do something for me? Go get me a case of beer and then get the hell out of here."
“I’m not going home with you or anyone else.” I sat up and pretended the pounding in my head was not a prelude to an explosion. “Your kids are screeching monsters. Your wife is a pain in the ass. You want to do something for me? Go get me a case of beer and then get the hell out of here.”
I saw his wife Maria standing behind him hugging an aluminum tray covered with foil. The inevitable lasagna. She brought it to every family gathering. Maria Lasagna. A pretty girl but stupid as shit.
Bobby pie eyed the empty scotch bottles around us. “You’re drinking again? I’m taking your car keys, Dad. You can kill yourself if you want, but I’m not gonna let you kill someone else.”
“Fuck you,” I said as he helped me get up.
“Are you still taking your medication?”
He was not supposed to know about that. No one, other than the GP who prescribed them and Helen, was supposed to know about that. It was fucking humiliating.
“Who the fuck said I was taking any medication?” I shouted.
“Mom told me. Why are you so defensive about taking antidepressants? Everyone takes them.”
“Mr. Delaney,” Maria said. “I looked this up on the internet this morning. It’s very dangerous to stop taking antidepressants all at once. If you want to stop, you’ve got to see a doctor first and wean yourself off them gradually.”
“Would you people leave me the fuck alone.”
“Charming, Dad. Look, we’re just trying to help you. Why do you have to piss all over anyone who tries to help you? We’re taking you out of here for the afternoon at least whether you like it or not so you better get used to it. When’s the last time you had a meal? When’s the last time you bathed for god’s sake? You stink, Dad.”
There were tears in my eyes, and I wanted to kill him for it. “I’m tired, Bobby. Get the fuck out of here and leave me alone.”
But he badgered me into a shower and a change of clothes while Maria made a production about putting away the trays and baskets of food that Helen’s friends and neighbors had left for me.
“Why don’t you take them home with you, Helen?” I said.
“Maria,” she said.
“For the kids. I’m not going to eat any of that shit. I don’t even know these people for Christ’s sake so why are they sending me food?” I was trying to make nice for calling her a pain in the ass, but she didn’t respond.
We went out to the Bridge Diner in Bay Ridge where Helen and I grew up and where Bobby now lived. By the time we got there, Father Pierre from Helen’s parish was waiting for us. I tried to leave, but Bobby wouldn’t let me. He strong-armed me over to the booth where the priest sat like a tarantula in its burrow. The priest was a strange one. Tall, thin, bearded, and awkward – reminded me of a black Abraham Lincoln without the amusing anecdotes. While they reminisced about Helen and extolled the virtues of sobriety, I sat and looked out the window. Helen walked by on the street but could not see us. The window glass reflected like a mirror on the outside. It was a younger Helen. She was wearing her suede jacket with the fringes, a piss poor choice, I thought, for a 90-degree day. Why was she walking around Bay Ridge? Why was she anywhere when she was dead? I told the others I was sick and hurried out to the street to see if I could catch her, but I had to stop to puke and she was gone when I finished.
“Just as well,” an Arab man sitting on a bench in front of a car service office said. “No good can come of pursuing the dead.”
The Dodgers/Giants were on. The last game of the night. I had put down the bottle when the room started spinning in the fifth inning, and now the dark thoughts were oozing into my head. I thought about what I would feel like to cut deep into my throat with the straight edged razor blade in my hand. To feel the pain, the sudden release of blood. I tried to warm up with a few halfhearted slashes to my wrist, but I was still too chicken shit to do it. I slipped a plastic garbage bag over my head to see how it felt and held it tight around my neck until I panicked. There were some sleeping pills up in the medicine chest. I had read that the best way to do it was to take some sleeping pills and tape the plastic bag over your head when they started to kick in. It sounded promising. I picked up the three-inch statue of a fat smiling Buddha Helen had bought me at a yard sale and asked if it was time yet, but he said no. Maybe I could do it after I slept a little.
At three in the morning I heard the front door open. When I went upstairs to investigate, Buddha was sitting in a full lotus position on the living room floor. He sat facing the window so his back was to me as I approached. He was not the fat statue Buddha. The one whose belly I rubbed for good luck. He was the skin and bones kind of Buddha. Buzz cut, shorts, no shirt and the earthy pungent funk of the unwashed.
“What the fuck are you doing in my living room?” I poked him in the ear and his head moved like a bobble head doll. His eyes were half closed and he was breathing very slowly. “I’m going downstairs to get my bat, you prick, and I want you out of here by the time I get back.”
It occurred to me as I was searching for the bat that the Buddha was probably not meditating in my living room, that a steady diet of scotch and salted peanuts might have had something to do with my thinking he was. I still looked for the bat because I had nothing better to do -- until Helen’s organizational skills distracted me. Outside the rec room were rows of shelves that I had erected to her exacting specifications. On the shelves were color-coded plastic tubs, which I opened and closed one by one. They held neatly folded winter clothes, batteries, flashlights, extra sheets, pens, wall hangings that had come and gone over the years, dinnerware, deodorant, warranties, toothpaste, cans of soup – everything that a person would need on her trip to the afterlife. Is that why she had organized everything so carefully? I should have had her cremated and kept her ashes in a shelf tub.
In the morning, he was still there silently sitting in the living room. Although I had convinced myself otherwise in the basement, I knew he was the Buddha when I saw him again. I turned on the TV, selected a soft porn movie on demand and blasted the volume to annoy him. Why was he meditating in my house anyway? I wasn’t Buddhist. I wasn’t anything. Raised a Catholic, I had stopped going to church when I was old enough to hang out at a bar instead of going to mass. It was all a pack of bullshit as far as I was concerned. Helen had a spiritual side. She sang in the parish choir every Sunday and insisted when she was dying that she get a Catholic funeral with everything on it, which is the only reason I went through with all that crap.
So why was the Buddha meditating in my house? I sat down to watch the porn movie and tried to remember a time when images of women with balloons sewn into their chests made me horny, but the stinky Buddha sitting in front of the screen distracted me. I left him there bombarded by fake moans of simulated desire. Served him right for breaking and entering.
“Did you know there was a homeless man in your living room?” Bobby said.
“You mean Buddha?” I said. “And how the hell did you get in here again? I thought I changed the locks.”
I was sitting cross-legged on the basement floor lining up small toys from a tub I had found in Helen’s school supplies shelf. She used to buy the toys at yard sales to give to her third grade students to reward good behavior. I had stopped drinking long enough to sort out the girl and boy toys to see which line would be longer.
“You didn’t change the locks, Dad. Did you let him in? Have you lost your mind?”
“Is he still up there?”
“I threw him out.”
“You threw out the Buddha? That’s bad karma. You’re going to come back as a goat if you don’t watch out.”
“What are you talking about? Dad, you haven’t said a word about mom or what you’re feeling since she died. You can’t keep it all bottled up inside. It’s eating you alive. If you don’t want to talk to us about it with me, I can make an appointment for you to see Father Pierre or a therapist.”
The boy toys won by a wide margin. I remembered Helen telling me that there were always plenty of super-hero and super-villain action figures available at yard sales. Why was that, I wondered? A holdover from bronze age mythology? The eternal battle of good versus evil? Light versus darkness? In the cartoons, the good guys always won in the end. In the comic books, the bad guys won sometimes. Maybe Helen had left these toys for me to convey a message. But what the hell was it? Maybe it was that I was cracking up.
I told Bobby that if he sent me a priest I would punch him out, so a few days later Bobby drove me to a shrink to make sure I went. The psychologist was apparently on hard times. No receptionist. Office on the ground level of a raised ranch house. Damp, cold, musty waiting room. A single issue each of Golf Digest, Parenting and Field & Stream. On the plus side, there was no television. If I cared about whether he could help me, it would probably have been a bad sign that I was alone in the waiting room. But I didn’t care, so I counted myself lucky. Nothing I hated more than a crowded waiting room.
“Your son is concerned about you,” Dr. Padghar said when we sat down. “He thinks you are spiraling out of control since your wife died. What do you think?”
His office was as shabby as his waiting room. He sat behind a battered metal desk; I luxuriated on a sagging recliner that smelled like sour milk.
“Be careful,” he said. “That chair no longer reclines.”
But it did, although it teetered alarmingly to the left when I pulled the handle to the recline position. He had to come out from behind his desk to help me get the chair back to its original upright position.
“Didn’t I just tell you,” he said, “that the chair does not recline?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So you did that deliberately to annoy me?”
“I wanted to see if you were telling me the truth. I have trust issues. So what do you know about the Buddha?” I said.
“Oh yes. Your son said that you thought you saw the Buddha. Is that right?”
“Yes. So what does it mean?”
“What do you think it means, Mister Delaney?”
We looked at each other until the moment had blossomed into painful awkwardness.
“Let’s try this from a different angle,” I said. “Am I crazy if I think the Buddha was in my living room?”
“Are you a Buddhist?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He wrote something on his notepad. “Go on,” he said. “Why don’t you know yet?”
“When my wife was dying I was reminded on a fairly regular basis that life is a meaningless joke so I think that might put me on the path to Buddhism.”
“Have you had thoughts of ending your life?”
“No,” I lied.
“But your son said you have been drinking to excess after your wife passed away, is that right?”
“She didn’t pass away. She died. And if you consider drinking a quart of Dewar’s before lunch to be excessive, then I am drinking to excess. Now when do we get to the part where you answer one of my questions because I was under the impression that shrinks did that type of thing.”
“Before we begin, I need you to sign this form.” He handed me a clipboard with a single sheet of paper on it, which read:
“I [insert patient’s name] agree on [insert today’s date] that in the event I have any thoughts of harming myself I will seek help immediately from Doctor Padghar. If he is not available, I agree that I will go immediately to the nearest emergency room to seek help. Signed: _________________.”
“It’s a formality,” doctor said.
“Will you charge my estate if I do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Suppose I’m thinking about jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. If I call you while I’m up there, but I jump off anyway, will you bill my estate for the call?”
“No, no, no.”
“I am asking that you call me when you think about harming yourself. If you are in the act already, it’s too late. You understand this?”
“So the answer is yes, you would charge my estate for the call?”
“That is irrelevant. I cannot help you unless you agree to call me in such a circumstance, Jack.”
“But you won’t tell me whether you’ll charge me for the call. Why not?”
“Why is that so important to you?”
“Why are you wasting my time?”
“If you will not agree to cooperate with me, Jack, then we must end this now.”
I took out a wad of bills and held them out to him.
“I will give this to you to keep, if you answer the following two questions. One -- have you ever encountered someone who was certifiably crazy and said he saw the Buddha in the flesh? Two -- have you ever encountered someone who was certifiably sane and said he saw the Buddha in the flesh?”
He stood up and led me out to the empty waiting room.
“Please feel free to schedule another appointment when you are in a better frame of mind.”
“You mean when I’m able to talk to you without acting like an asshole?’”
“Yes, that is what I mean.”
I appreciated his honesty so I gave him the wad of bills. I thought he’d refuse them, but he shoved them in his pocket, went back to his office and locked the door. My respect for the man and his profession was budding.
“What happened?” Bobby said when I got in his car.
“Don’t pay him. I already paid him. So don’t pay him twice.”
“But how’d it go?”
“Fine. He said I’m cured.”
“I’m telling you. He used hypnotism and acupuncture. It was great. I’m not depressed anymore. Let’s celebrate at Schaefer’s with some bratwurst. I’m buying.”
I insisted on walking home from the restaurant. That way, Bobby wouldn’t try to come inside. I didn’t want him to see that the Buddha was back in my living room. It was about as quiet as a summer night gets in Staten Island, which is not saying much. The bass woofers in a car that drove past were so loud, the sidewalk trembled under my feet. I saw a light in the sky and looked up, but it was just a police helicopter racing toward another bloody tragedy. When I got home, I blasted Buddha with “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” on the TV and went downstairs to sleep.
After the last game of the night, I went upstairs to get a slice of the lasagna that Mary had left in the fridge. The pan was on the kitchen table with Buddha sitting over it and licking his fingers. He looked less emaciated and a lot happier than the last time I had seen him. And he didn’t stink. He was wearing one of my Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals.
“Feel free to make yourself at home,” I said. “Just take anything you need from my closet or refrigerator.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“I thought you were a vegetarian. There’s meat sauce and sausages in there.”
“Ag, you must have me confused with some other Buddha, bro.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m doing a Bodhisattva. I was so frickin’ hungry I had to don the apron, bud.” He ate a few more bites with a quiet mesmerizing intensity. When he licked his last finger, I asked him what a Bodhisattva was.
“You know what it means, brah. You read that Buddha for Dummies book in the night table by your bed, remember?”
“I was a bit distracted at the time what with my wife dying beside me and all.”
“Got to get past that, bro. Obviously, you don’t want her dead. You can’t change the dead part, but you can change the wanting part. That’s what the book was about, remember? But don’t sweat it. Most of it’s barnyard. Being a Bodhisattva means I stuck it, but I’m hanging around to help others do it too.”
“What are you doing in my house?”
“Why not in your house, bruddah? You’re rattly bleak.”
“What is that surfer slang? Why is my hallucination of Buddha talking to me in surferese?”
“Chillax, bro. That’s what I’m here to tell you. Stop thinking so much about how miserable you are and do something about it. Try focusing on something else for a change. Like breathing. Breathing is good. Deep breaths. Short breaths. Long breaths. Shallow breaths. It’s all redonculous.”
“Redonculous? Is that a word?”
“Okay. Forget the surfer talk. I’m just trying to lighten things up. I thought it would go with the Hawaiian shirt you gave me. What you need to do is get your head out your ass, quiet your mind and just breathe. Turn off the ballgame and lose the booze so you don’t get distracted. Focus on your breathing. And when you start getting angry about some stupid thing, like you do every five seconds, just let it go for a change and go back to breathing. Count your breaths if it helps you stay focused. Concentrate on your breath entering and leaving your body. Do it for as long as you can as many times a day as you can.”
“That’s it? I should breathe? No mysterious metaphors? No secret of life? Not much of a Buddha, are you?”
“Zing. Okay, you want big picture? Life sucks. For billions of people, life is horrible from start to finish. You’ve had it pretty cushy, but you’re miserable because you always want more or this or less of that. The more you stop wanting, the less life sucks. It’s pretty simple. Why are you so angry, dude? Why do you hate everyone? There’s no one to hate, brah. Not even yourself. It’s all a delusion.”
“Like the one I’m having now?” I got myself a knife and fork and sat down at the table to eat lasagna. If it was good enough for my delusion, it was good enough for me.
“So is that all you got? I said with a mouthful of cold lasagna. “And what the hell does redonculous mean?”
“Are you listening?” The homeless Buddha floated a few inches above the seat of his chair.
“Wake up, man. Think about someone else for a change. The deep shit you don’t need right now. All you need to know is that now is all there is. Forget the labels attached to everything and see things for what they are. It ma be a meaningless joke, but it isn’t so bad if you get the joke. Redonculous means beyond ridiculous. That’s where nirvana is, bro.”
“What’s on the menu besides new age brain farts? Magic crystals?”
“Hey. You asked. Lookit, if anything I say doesn’t work for you, forget about it. I tell you what. If you want to feel better, the best thing you can do is treat everyone like your newborn child -- not to score points with some weird ass god – do it because it feels good and it’s the right thing to do. And it wouldn’t hurt to get off your ass and help those who need help. Just try it along with the breathing thing. If it doesn’t work for you, then just chalk me up to Paxil withdrawal and take another bite of your liver. Hey, you mind if I crash in your bed? I’m kished, brah.”
When I woke up the next day, someone had lined the empty scotch bottles up on a shelf near the slop sink. I didn’t remember dumping them out, but I didn’t think that Helen’s ghost had done it either. Surfer Buddha had flown the coop again, assuming he ever existed. I showered, brewed some coffee and toasted some stale bread. Then I went out to the backyard and sat in the morning sunshine. The birds chirped, the bees buzzed, the neighbor unleashed his 500 horsepower leaf blower and I practiced breathing. No sense being rattly bleak when I can be redonculous, bruddah.
Father Pierre came by a few days later, and I made an effort to be polite for Bobby’s sake. We sipped Diet Pepsis in my back yard and enjoyed the summer afternoon. He talked about what a wonderful woman Helen was -- like that meant something to me. What was he going to say? She was a roaring bitch and he was glad she was dead? I waited for him to get to the so happy in heaven crap, but he didn’t touch it.
“So, what’s next?” he said. “You just gonna sit around and drink yourself to death. Is that the plan?” He was smiling when he said it. Like he didn’t give a damn what I did. It was a refreshing attitude for a priest.
“You see what I’m drinking? Diet Pepsi. Anyway, what’s it to you?”
“Nothing. Just wondering. You’re retired, I hear. Must have a lot of time on your hands. Ever think about getting off your ass and helping out?”
“Is this some new strategy to save my soul?”
“No. I told Bobby I’d talk to you about it. Now I can say I did. You want to wallow in grief, that’s your business. You want to try to get over this, maybe I can help you. And, by the way, I don’t care if you’re a true believer or an atheist.”
“You sound pissed,” I said.
“I am pissed. Seems like all the white folks I talk to in this parish are only interested in themselves. I spend more time holding the hands of well to do spoiled narcissists than anything else. It’s sickening. There are billions of people suffering out there, and no one gives a shit. Helen was one of the few who looked outside herself. I thought I might find a little of her in you. Obviously, I was wrong.”
“So is this the part where you put the bite on me for a donation to your worthy cause?”
He came back, put his hands on the arms of my chair and leaned his face into mine. “I want you to get off your fat white ass, stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something, anything, to help others worse off than you. Donate your time to a soup kitchen, visit some people rotting in hospitals or jails, tutor kids who are flunking out of school, and, yes, donate some of the money you’re hoarding to help feed the poor. Is that clear enough?”
“You are one weird priest, you know that? I get your point. How about I write you a check and you donate it to a worthy cause?”
“You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want your money. I don’t want you to come to mass on Sundays and pretend you’re a Catholic. I don’t want anything from you. I am telling you that it is in your own best interests to grow up and start doing something for someone besides yourself. Clearer than that I cannot be.”
“Okay, okay,” I said to his back as he starting walking away again. “Wait a minute, would ya? Don’t get so bent out of shape. I’m listening, aren’t I? A few days ago, I would have thrown you out on the street by now.”
He turned around and looked me over from head to toe. “I seriously doubt that, old man.”
“Zing. Look, not to change the subject or anything – I understand what you’re saying and I don’t disagree – but have you seen the Buddha recently?”
“Oh right. Bobby mentioned that. Do you really think Buddha paid you a visit?”
“Not the 500 B.C. Buddha. He said he was a Bodhisattva.”
“Bobby said he was a homeless man.”
“Yeah, well, he was probably that too. Or it could have been a Dewar’s induced hallucination.”
“You’d be better off saying you saw Jesus. A lot of people wouldn’t blink an eye at that.”
“Did he tell to do something?” Father Pierre said.
“You mean like mutilate the neighbor’s dog and hack up his kids?”
“So did he?”
“No psychotic commandments. He told me to work on my breathing, gave me a surfer summary of the four noble truths and some other pointers I probably remembered from a book I was reading. Oh, and he also suggested I try to get my head out of my ass. Reminded me of you. That’s why I asked.”
“Look, I don’t want anything to do with the religious mumbo jumbo, but I guess I could help out somewhere. I’ll look around. You know any soup kitchens that need some help?”
“What am I? Your secretary? Find ‘em yourselves.”
“Well, fuck you.”
“Fuck you too, asshole. You come to the rectory tomorrow maybe I’ll give you some leads.”
The young priest laughed, effortlessly levitated out of my back yard and flew away. I got back to breathing and resolved not to leave my lawn chair until I reached redonculousness -- unless Mara tempted me with the Mister Softee truck, in which case all bets were off.
Michael Enright is endemic to the boroughs of New York City where he raised his young in a nest under the Brooklyn Bridge. He currently resides in Staten Island, home to one of the first manmade objects visible from space -- the Great Kills Landfill.
Copyright 2003-2006 AntiMuse